In 1975, the comic book industry is struggling. It has survived, mostly, Frederic Wertham’s criticisms and claims regarding a causal relationship between reading comics and becoming a juvenile delinquent in Seduction of the Innocent. But there have been casualties. Readership is down. Publishers are closing. Writers and artists are left scrambling for available positions. And yet, amazing things are happening in the industry. Marvel has created, and is developing, characters that will define the industry in future decades. Artists like Jack Kirby, who will work at both DC and Marvel and become one of the most celebrated comic artists in history, is actively defining what can be done in the medium. It is the “Bronze Age” of comic history, decades before comics become a cultural juggernaut and a source for every form of entertainment possible. It is in this world that Alex Segura places his new novel, Secret Identity.
Carmen Valdez is a young, Latinx woman, originally from Miami, who has moved to New York City with the dream of working in comics. Ultimately, she wants to be a writer, but she knows she has to “pay her dues.” So she has taken the job of Jeffrey Carlyle’s secretary. Carlyle is the owner and editor-in-chief for Triumph Comics, a company several steps below industry leaders DC and Marvel. Triumph publishes comics that are solid but nothing special. And Carmen is sure, given the chance, she could provide the ideas necessary to provide Triumph with its first hit comic. So when her co-worker Harvey Stern, a writer with Triumph, asks for her input on a new project, Carmen jumps at the chance. The two of them create The Lethal Lynx, Triumph’s first female superhero. Harvey submits the concept and it is immediately accepted, but Carmen’s name is missing. Harvey promises he will let Carlyle know she worked on the project “when the time is right.”
Just as Carmen predicted, The Lethal Lynx becomes Triumph’s highest selling comic overnight. What Carmen didn’t predict was Harvey being found murdered in his apartment. No one has any idea why he was killed, but Carmen is determined to find out.
Segura, himself a comic book writer, deftly captures the atmosphere of comics in the mid-70s, a niche interest on the verge of becoming a global obsession in just a few decades. This includes the “old boy” network that pervaded the publishers and the rampant and blatant misogyny that permeated both the offices where comics were created and the pages they produced.
Segura also paints a vivid picture of an industry trying desperately to decide who and what it is. Are the writers and artists that produce the monthly books hacks or artists? Is their product disposable ephemera or something more substantial? These are questions for which we now have, decades later, answers. But Segura does an admirable job of exploring the fears, concerns, and resignation of his characters regarding their chosen field.
In addition to the comic book industry, Segura does a marvelous job of capturing 70s New York City, describing perfectly how it was simultaneously an inspiration for dreams and nightmares, dangerously teetering on the brink of financial ruin. The mystery Segura presents is top notch with a number of potential suspects and readers will root for Carmen as she doggedly attempts to identify Harvey’s killer, putting herself in danger in the process.
Part history of the comic book industry, part noir influenced murder mystery, and part coming of age story, Secret Identity is a genre bending/blending novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Be sure to read an interview with Alex Segura.